If you were a member of Congress and could vote either for a bad bill that would at least address a critical need, or no bill at all, which would you choose?
That was the question Tom Cotton faced Jan. 4, only three days after being sworn in as a member of Congress. He voted no.
The bill in question allowed the National Flood Insurance Program to borrow $9.7 billion to cover claims filed by East Coast homeowners affected by Hurricane Sandy.
That’s the kind of spending provision members of Congress routinely OK without much debate. We’ve all seen the pictures of the devastation. Just as important, members of Congress know that, next time, it might be their own district needing help. Arkansas’ other congressional representatives voted yes.
Cotton told me in an interview that he would have voted for the bill had its costs been offset with spending cuts elsewhere. But since it’s all borrowed money, he couldn’t do it.
Moreover, he said the National Flood Insurance Program is broken, collecting less in premiums from homeowners than it needs to offset the risk. The way it’s set up, taxpayers in his south Arkansas district are subsidizing beachfront property owners on the East Coast.
This was a tough vote, but he doesn’t sound conflicted about it. He chuckled – and not cynically – when I asked him if voting no made him feel “like a jerk.”
“I felt like I was doing my job to be a guardian of Arkansas taxpayers’ dollars,” he said.
The debate over the issue is far from over. This week, the House is taking up another $50 billion in hurricane relief, not all of which is actually providing relief. Some members of Congress are using the disaster to send unrelated federal dollars to their districts. He’s waiting to see how amendments change the proposal before making up his mind.
The obvious question is, would he worry about these details if south Arkansas were hit by a natural disaster and he needed yes votes from East Coast congressmen? He said that would be different. Any likely disaster striking his district probably could be met with dedicated Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, not a haphazard appropriation by Congress. And if it were so bad that extraordinary measures were needed – say, after an earthquake that leveled parts of the district? He said he would look for offsetting cuts in the budget at the same time he asked Congress for help.
Will Cotton be a champion of fiscal responsibility in Washington? The government borrows 42 cents of every dollar it spends, so balancing the budget will require a lot less spending and some more revenue. Most of the money is spent in four areas: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense, plus interest. Cotton campaigned on reforming the first three. We can debate his solutions – making seniors deal with insurance companies for their health care with help from the government, for one – but at least he’s addressing the issue. The United States spends more than the next 13 countries combined on defense. He says the military has been cut enough, though he would reluctantly accept the coming second fiscal cliff cuts if there is no way to shift them to other areas of government. He’s for tax reform but doesn’t want the government to collect any more money than it does now.
That math is better than some of what we’ve had, but it doesn’t get us to a balanced budget.
Still, Cotton did what Congress and the president rarely do: acknowledge that the budget can’t be balanced painlessly. Of course the East Coast homeowners should have gotten help, but it should have come at the expense of cutting something else.
Because once again, future generations will bear the burden of paying it all back, and they don’t have any choice in the matter at all.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be followed on Twitter at @stevebrawner.